Found in the Vault: A Letter from John Greenleaf Whittier

This week we’re bringing you some new content that’s unique to MSU Special Collections!  Each chapter of Found in the Vault is going to highlight some interesting examples of (potential) provenance evidence found in MSU’s rare books, uncovered during the course of this project.

For our first installment we’re looking at MSU’s first edition of Lays of my home, and other poems by 19th-century Quaker poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier.  Whittier is perhaps best known today as one of the Fireside Poets, and as the namesake of the town of Whittier, California (and its eponymous liberal arts college).  Pasted inside MSU’s copy of this 1843 collection of Whittier’s works is the following note:

Note from John Greenleaf Whittier, found tipped into MSU's Lays of my home, and other poems (XX PS3259.L2)

Note from John Greenleaf Whittier, found tipped into MSU’s copy of Lays of my home, and other poems (XX PS3259.L2)

Whittier’s handwriting makes the note somewhat difficult to read, but it appears to be a letter of recommendation written for the poet’s nephew, Charles Franklin (C. F.) Whittier.  The note reveals that Charles is looking for work as a bookkeeper and clerk in New York, and praises the youth as being “Honest & capable” with three years of experience already as a clerk.  Whittier writes, “I have no doubt he would faithfully & satisfactorily discharge his duties,” and signs the letter “Your friend, John G. Whittier.”

Closeup of Whittier's signature

Closeup of Whittier’s signature

Unfortunately, someone folded the note right over the autograph, but once flattened out and pieced back together enough remains to authenticate the signature as belonging to the poet.  Underneath, a (later) note identifies Whittier as “The Quaker Poet” – lest the author be confused for another 19th-century John G. Whittier living in Amesbury, Massachusetts.

It is unclear how exactly this letter found its way into this collection of poetry.  There are no other markers of provenance in or on the book, so we have no way of knowing whether this copy may have belonged to Whittier’s nephew himself (unlikely), his potential employer, who would have presumably received the note (more likely), or some unrelated, unknown third party who decided to combine two rare items related to the poet in order to boost the book’s value (most likely).  We may never know the answer, but letters like this one will always be a fertile ground for study, as they are by their very nature unique.


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